I'm Andrew Lavery, a freshman Computer Science major at the University of Michigan.
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The Paranoid Style of American Policing

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Paul Beaty / AP

When I was around 10 years old, my father confronted a young man who was said to be “crazy.” The young man was always too quick to want to fight. A foul in a game of 21 was an insult to his honor. A cross word was cause for a duel, and you never knew what that cross word might be. One day, the young man got into it with one of my older brother’s friends. The young man pulled a metal stake out of the ground (there was some work being done nearby) and began swinging it wildly in a threatening manner. My father, my mother, or my older brother—I don’t recall which—told the other boy to go inside of our house. My dad Dad then came outside. I don’t really remember what my father said to the young man. Perhaps he said something like “Go home,” or maybe something like, “Son, it’s over.” I don’t really recall. But what I do recall is that my dad Dad did not shoot and kill the young man.

That wasn’t the first time I’d seen my father confront the violence of young people without resorting to killing them. This was not remarkable. When you live in communities like ours—or perhaps any community—mediating violence between young people is part of being an adult. Sometimes the young people are involved in scary behavior—like threatening people with metal objects. And yet the notion that it is permissible, wise, moral, or advisable to kill such a person as a method of de-escalation, to kill because one was afraid, did not really exist among parents in my community.

The same could not be said for those who came from outside of the community.

This weekend, after a Chicago police officer killed her 19-year-old son Quintonio LeGrier, Janet Cooksey struggled to understand the mentality of the people she pays to keep her community safe:

“What happened to Tasers? Seven times my son was shot,” Cooksey said.

“The police are supposed to serve and protect us and yet they take the lives,” Cooksey said.

“Where do we get our help?” she asked.

LeGrier had struggled with mental illness. When LeGrier attempted to break down his father’s door, his father called the police, who apparently arrived to find the 19-year-old wielding a bat. Interpreting this as a lethal threat, one of the officers shot and killed LeGrier and somehow managed to shoot and kill one of his neighbors, Bettie Jones. Cooksey did not merely have a problem with how the police acted, but with the fact that the police were even called in the first place. “He should have called me,” Cooksey said of LeGrier’s father.

Instead, the father called the Chicago Police Department. police department. Likely he called them because he invested them with some measure of legitimacy. This is understandable. In America, police officers are agents of the state and thus bound by the social contract in a way that criminals, and even random citizens, are not. Criminals and random citizens are not paid to protect other citizens. Police officers are. By that logic, one might surmise that the police would be better able to mediate conflicts than community members. In Chicago, this appears, very often, not to be the case.

It will not do to note that 99 percent of the time the police mediate conflicts without killing people people, anymore than it will do for a restaurant to note that 99 percent of the time rats don’t run through the dining room. Nor will it do to point out that most black citizens are killed by other black citizens, not police officers, anymore than it will do to point out that most American citizens are killed by other American citizens, not terrorists. If officers cannot be expected to act any better than ordinary citizens, why call them in the first place? Why invest them with any more power?

Legitimacy is what is ultimately at stake here. When Cooksey says that her son’s father should not have called the police, when she says that they “are supposed to serve and protect us and yet they take the lives,” she is saying that police in Chicago are police in name only. This opinion is widely shared. Asked about the possibility of an investigation, Melvin Jones, the brother of Bettie Jones, could muster no confidence. “I already know how that will turn out,” he scoffed. “We all know how that will turn out.”

Indeed, we probably do. Two days after Jones and LeGrier were killed, a district attorney in Ohio declined to prosecute the two officers who drove up, and within two seconds of arriving, killed the 12-year-old Tamir Rice. No one should be surprised by this. In America, we have decided that it is permissible, that it is wise, that it is moral for the police to de-escalate through killing. A standard which would not have held for my father in West Baltimore, which did not hold for me in Harlem, is reserved for those who have the maximum power—the right to kill on behalf of the state. When police can not adhere to the standards of the neighborhood, of citizens, or of parents, what are they beyond a bigger gun and a sharper sword? By what right do they enforce their will, save force itself?

When policing is delegitimized, when it becomes an occupying force, the community suffers. The neighbor-on-neighbor violence in Chicago, and in black communities around the country, is not an optical illusion. Policing is (one) part of the solution to that violence. But if citizens don’t trust officers, then policing can’t actually work. And in Chicago, it is very hard to muster reasons for trust.

When Bettie Jones’s brother displays zero confidence in an investigation into the killing of his sister, he is not being cynical. He is shrewdly observing a government that executed a young man and sought to hide that fact from citizens. He is intelligently assessing a local government which, for two decades, ran a torture ring. What we have made of our police departments America, what we have ordered them to do, is a direct challenge to any usable definition of democracy. A state that allows its agents to kill, to beat, to tase, without any real sanction, has ceased to govern and has commenced to simply rule.

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DuskStar
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legroft
659 days ago
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"...one might surmise that the police would be better able to mediate conflicts than community members. In Chicago, this appears, very often, not to be the case.

It will not do to note that 99 percent of the time the police mediate conflicts without killing people anymore than it will do for a restaurant to note that 99 percent of the time rats don’t run through the dining room. Nor will it do to point out that most black citizens are killed by other black citizens, not police officers, anymore than it will do to point out that most American citizens are killed by other American citizens, not terrorists. If officers cannot be expected to act any better than ordinary citizens, why call them in the first place? Why invest them with any more power?

In America, we have decided that it is permissible, that it is wise, that it is moral for the police to de-escalate through killing."
vpatil
661 days ago
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"In America, we have decided that it is permissible, that it is wise, that it is moral for the police to de-escalate through killing."

We should all follow Linus's example

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Yet another Linus rant has hit the news, where he complains about how "your shit code is fucking brain damaged". Many have complained about his rudeness, how it's unprofessional, and part of the culture of harassment in tech. They are wrong. Linus Torvalds is the nicest guy in tech. We should all try to be more like him.

The problem in tech isn't bad language ("your shit code"), but personal attacks ("you are shit").

A good example is Brendan Eich, who was fired from his position as Mozilla CEO because people disagreed with his political opinions. Another example is Nobel prize winner Tim Hunt who was fired because people took his pro-feminist comments out of context and painted him as a misogynist. Another example is Pax Dickinson, who was fired as CTO of Business Insider because of jokes he made before founding the company. A programmer named Curtis Yavin* was booted from a tech conference because he's some sort of monarchist. Yet more examples are the doxing and bomb threats that censor both sides of the GamerGate fiasco. The entire gamer community is a toxic cesspool of personal attacks. We have another class of people, the "SJW"s, who viciously attack those they disagree with, trying to get them fired. They treat those who make a mistake or disagree with them as an evil misogynists who needs to be punished, rather than as people who need to be corrected -- or debated.

What all these things have in common is that they attack the person. They strive to dehumanize the person, to make them an un-person, so that we stop empathizing with them. These attacks seek to intimidate and punish, not to educate or inform.

Linus punishes nobody. He intimidates nobody. He has that power, to act as a dictator to ban people for life from the Linux kernel, but doesn't use that power. Indeed, his use of power demonstrates extreme humility. Even in this case, he declares he doesn't "want" to accept the code into the kernel, not that he "won't".

His rant is designed to inform. The Linux kernel is a work of art based on certain consistent principles, such as not needlessly obfuscating implementation details. He takes the time to yet again lay out his philosophy that guides the kernel. Yes, his language is strong, but I'm not sure how else he'd communicate the unreasonableness of the code in question.


Personal attacks are increasingly the norm in our society. Pick any political debate -- the basis of people's arguments is not that the opposition is wrong, but that they are unreasonable and sub-human. Such discourse would improve if everyone emulated Linus's example, as we'd start debating the issues (albeit with course language) rather than attacking each other.




Seriously, try it. Can you debate issues like abortion, anti-vaxx, taxes, immigration, or global warming in such a way that it doesn't include dehumanizing personal attacks? Can you debate such issues with the overwhelming belief that your opponents are reasonable people? Linus displays that belief. You don't.



Linus could, of course, be even nicer. But the thing is, Linus doesn't ruin careers, unlike these
harassers feted by WIRED

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Ordinary Words Will Do

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Izabella Laba, a noted mathematician at the University of British Columbia, recently posted some tweets that used me as a bad, cautionary example for how “STEM faculty should be less contemptuous of social sciences.”  Here was the offending comment of mine, from the epic Walter Lewin thread last fall:

[W]hy not dispense with the empirically-empty notion of “privilege,” and just talk directly about the actual well-being of actual people, or groups of people?  If men are doing horrific things to women—for example, lashing them for driving cars, like in Saudi Arabia—then surely we can just say so in plain language.  Stipulating that the torturers are “exercising their male privilege” with every lash adds nothing to anyone’s understanding of the evil.  It’s bad writing.  More broadly, it seems to me that the entire apparatus of “privilege,” “delegitimation,” etc. etc. can simply be tossed overboard, to rust on the ocean floor alongside dialectical materialism and other theoretical superstructures that were once pompously insisted upon as preconditions of enlightened social discourse.  This isn’t quantum field theory.  Ordinary words will do.

Prof. Laba derisively commented:

Might as well ask you to explain calculus without using fancy words like “derivative” or “continuous.”  Simple number arithmetic will do.

Prof. Laba’s tweets were favorited by Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematician who wrote the excellent popular book How Not to Be Wrong.  (Ellenberg had also criticized me last year for my strange, naïve idea that human relations can be thought about using logic.)

Given my respect for the critics, I guess I’m honor-bound to respond.

For the record, I tend not to think about the social sciences—or for that matter, the natural sciences—as monolithic entities at all.  I admire any honest attempt to discover the truth about anything.  And not being a postmodern relativist, I believe there are deep truths worth discovering in history, psychology, economics, linguistics, possibly even sociology.  Reading the books of Steven Pinker underscored for me how much is actually understood nowadays about human nature—much of it only figured out within the last half-century.  Likewise, reading the voluminous profundities of Scott Alexander taught me that even in psychiatry, there are truths (and even a few definite cures) to be had for those who seek.

I also believe that the social sciences are harder—way harder—than math or physics or CS.  They’re harder because of tenuousness of the correlations, because of the complexity of each individual human brain (let alone 7 billion of them on the same planet), but most of all, because politics and ideology and the scientist’s own biases place such powerful thumbs on the scale.  This makes it all the more impressive when a social scientist, like (say) Stanley Milgrom or Judith Rich Harris or Napoleon Chagnon, teaches the world something important and new.

I will confess to contempt for anything that I regard as pompous obscurantism—for self-referential systems of jargon whose main purposes are to bar outsiders, to mask a lack of actual understanding, and to confer power on certain favored groups.  And I regard the need to be alert to such systems, to nip them in the bud before they grow into Lysenkoism, as in some sense the problem of intellectual life.  Which brings me to the most fundamental asymmetry between the hard and soft sciences.  Namely, the very fact that it’s so much harder to nurture new truths to maturity in the social sciences than it is in math or physics, means that in the former, the jargon-weeds have an easier time filling the void—and we know they’ve done it again and again, even in the post-Enlightenment West.

Time for a thought experiment.  Suppose you showed up at a university anytime between, let’s say, 1910 and 1970, and went from department to department asking (in so many words): what are you excited about this century?  Where are your new continents, what’s the future of your field?  Who should I read to learn about that future?

In physics, the consensus answer would’ve been something like: Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Dirac.

In psychology, it would’ve been: Freud and Jung (with another faction for B. F. Skinner).

In politics and social sciences, over an enormous swath of academia (including in the West), it would’ve been: Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lenin.

With hindsight, we now know that the physics advice would’ve been absolute perfection, the psychology and politics advice an unmitigated disaster.  Yes, physicists today know more than Einstein, can even correct him on some points, but the continents he revealed to us actually existed—indeed, have only become more important since Einstein’s time.

But Marx and Freud?  You would’ve done better to leave the campus, and ask a random person on the street what she or he thought about economics and psychology.  In high school, I remember cringing through a unit on the 1920s, when we learned about how “two European professors upset a war-weary civilization’s established certainties—with Einstein overturning received wisdom about space and time, and Freud doing just the same for the world of the mind.”  It was never thought important to add that Einstein’s theories turned out to be true while Freud’s turned out to be false.  Still, at least Freud’s ideas led “only” to decades of bad psychology and hundreds of innocent people sent to jail because of testimony procured through hypnosis, rather than to tens of millions of dead, as with the other social-scientific theory that reigned supreme among 20th-century academics.

Marx and Freud built impressive intellectual edifices—sufficiently impressive for a large fraction of intellectuals to have accepted those men as gurus on par with Darwin and Einstein for almost a century.  Yet on nearly every topic they wrote about, we now know that Marx and Freud couldn’t have been any more catastrophically wrong.  Moreover, their wrongness was knowable at the time—and was known to many, though the ones who knew were typically the ones who the intellectual leaders sneered at, as deluded reactionaries.

Which raises a question: suppose that, in the 1920s, I’d taken the social experts’ advice to study Marx and Freud, didn’t understand much of what they said (and found nonsensical much of what I did understand), and eventually rejected them as pompous charlatans.  Then why wouldn’t I have been just like Prof. Laba’s ignorant rube, who dismisses calculus because he doesn’t understand technical terms like “continuous” and “derivative”?

On reflection, I don’t think that the two cases are comparable at all.

The hard sciences need technical vocabularies for a simple reason: because they’re about things that normal people don’t spend their hours obsessively worrying about.  Yes, I’d have a hard time understanding organic chemists or differential geometers, but largely for the same reasons I’d have a hard time understanding football fans or pirates.  It’s not just that I don’t understand the arguments; it’s that the arguments are about a world that’s alien to me (and that, to be honest, I don’t care about as much as I do my world).

Suppose, by contrast, that you’re writing about the topics everyone spends their time obsessively worrying about: politics, society, the human mind, the relations between the races and sexes.  In other words, suppose you’re writing about precisely the topics for which the ordinary English language has been honed over centuries—for which Shakespeare and Twain and Dr. King and so many others deployed the language to such spectacular effect.  In that case, what excuse could you possibly have to write in academese, to pepper your prose with undefined in-group neologisms?

Well, let’s be charitable; maybe you have a reason.  For example, maybe you’re doing a complicated meta-analysis of psychology papers, so you need to talk about r-values and kurtosis and heteroskedasticity.  Or maybe you’re putting people in an fMRI machine while you ask them their inner thoughts, so you need to talk about the temporal resolution in the anterior cingulate cortex.  Or maybe you’re analyzing sibling rivalries using game theory, so you need Nash equilibria.  Or you’re picking apart sentences using Chomskyan formal grammar.  In all these cases, armchair language doesn’t suffice because you’re not just sitting in your armchair: you’re using a new tool to examine the everyday from a different perspective.  For present purposes, you might as well be doing algebraic geometry.

The Freudians and Marxists would, of course, claim that they’re doing the exact same thing.  Yes, they’d say, you thought you had the words to discuss your own mind or the power structure of society, but really you didn’t, because you lacked the revolutionary theoretical framework that we now possess.  (Trotsky’s writings  are suffused with this brand of arrogance in nearly every sentence: for example, when he ridicules the bourgeoisie liberals who whine about “human rights violations” in the early USSR, yet are too dense to phrase their objections within the language of dialectical materialism.)

I submit that, even without the hindsight of 2015, there would’ve been excellent reasons to be skeptical of these claims.  Has it ever happened, you might ask yourself, that someone sat in their study and mused about the same human questions that occupied Plato and Shakespeare and Hume, in the same human way they did, and then came up with a new, scientific conclusion that was as rigorous and secure as relativity or evolution?

Let me know if I missed something, but I can’t think of a single example.  Sure, it seems to me, there have been geniuses of human nature, who enlarged our vision without any recourse to the quantitative methods of science.  But even those geniuses “only” contributed melodies for other geniuses to answer in counterpoint, rather than stones for everyone who came later to build upon.  Also, the geniuses usually wrote well.

Am I claiming that progress is impossible in the social realm?  Not at all.  The emancipation of slaves, the end of dueling and blasphemy laws and the divine right of kings, women’s suffrage and participation in the workforce, gay marriage—all these strike me as crystal-clear examples of moral progress, as advances that will still be considered progress a thousand years from now, if there’s anyone around then to discuss such things.  Evolutionary psychology, heuristics and biases, reciprocal altruism, and countless other developments likewise strike me as intellectual progress within the sciences of human nature.  But none of these advances needed recondite language!  Ordinary words sufficed for Thomas Paine and Frederick Douglass and John Stuart Mill, as they sufficed for Robert Axelrod and for Kahneman and Tversky.  So forgive me for thinking that whatever is true and important in the social world today, should likewise be defensible to every smart person in ordinary words, and that this represents a genuine difference between the social sciences and physics.

Which brings us to the central point that Prof. Laba disputed in that comment of mine.  I believe there are countless moral heroes in our time, as well as social scientists who struggle heroically to get the right answers.  But as far as I can tell, the people who build complex intellectual edifices around words like “privilege” and “delegitimation” and “entitlement” and “marginalized” are very much the same sort of people who, a few generations ago, built similar edifices around “bourgeoisie” and “dialectical” and “false consciousness.”  In both cases, there’s an impressive body of theory that’s held up as the equivalent in its domain of relativity, quantum mechanics, and Darwinism, with any skeptics denounced as science-deniers.  In both cases, enlightened liberals are tempted to side with the theorists, since the theorists believe in so many of the same causes that the enlightened liberals believe in, and hate so many of the same people who the enlightened liberals hate.  But in both cases, the theorists’ language seems to alternate between incomprehensible word-salad and fervid, often profanity-laced denunciations, skipping entirely over calm clarity.  And in both cases, the only thing that the impressive theoretical edifice ever seems to get used for, is to prove over and over that certain favored groups should get more power while disfavored ones should get less.

So I’m led to the view that, if you want to rouse people’s anger about injustice or their pity about preventable suffering, or end arbitrary discrimination codified into law, or give individuals more freedom to pursue their own happiness, or come up with a new insight about human nature, or simply describe the human realities that you see around you—for all these purposes, the words that sufficed for every previous generation’s great humanists will also suffice for you.

On the other hand, to restrict freedom and invent new forms of discrimination—and to do it in the name of equality and justice—that takes theory.  You’ll need a sophisticated framework, for example, to prove that even if two adults both insist they’re consenting to a relationship, really they might not be, because of power structures in the wider society that your superior insight lets you see.  You’ll need advanced discourse to assure you that, even though your gut reaction might be horror at (say) someone who misspoke once and then had their life gleefully destroyed on social media, your gut is not to be trusted, because it’s poisoned by the same imperialist, patriarchal biases as everything else—and because what looks like a cruel lynching needs to be understood in a broader social context (did the victim belong to a dominant group, or to a marginalized one?).  Finally, you’ll need oodles of theory (bring out the Marcuse) to explain why the neoliberal fanaticism about “free speech” and “tolerance” and “due process” and “the presumption of innocence” is too abstract and simplistic—for those concepts, too, fail to distinguish between a marginalized group that deserves society’s protection and a dominant group that doesn’t.

So I concede to Prof. Laba that the complicated discourse of privilege, hegemony, etc. serves a definite purpose for the people who wield it, just as much as the complicated discourse of quantum field theory serves a purpose for physicists.  It’s just that the purposes of the privilege-warriors aren’t my purposes.  For my purposes—which include fighting injustice, advancing every social and natural science as quickly as possible, and helping all well-meaning women and men see each other’s common humanity—I said last year and I say again that ordinary words will do.

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DuskStar
734 days ago
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Excellent.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
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Schlock Mercenary: August 12, 2015

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Schlock MercenaryFirstPreviousArchiveShop

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DuskStar
802 days ago
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DIY fireworks!
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Meeting

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Here at CompanyName.website, our three main strengths are our web-facing chairs, our huge collection of white papers, and the fact that we physically cannot die.
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965 days ago
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lart
965 days ago
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Alt Text: Here at CompanyName.website, our three main strengths are our web-facing chairs, our huge collection of white papers, and the fact that we physically cannot die.
Aissen
961 days ago
Hi! If you care about alt text, you can follow @alt_text_bot :-) http://alt_text_bot.newsblur.com/
alt_text_bot
965 days ago
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Here at CompanyName.website, our three main strengths are our web-facing chairs, our huge collection of white papers, and the fact that we physically cannot die.

Git Commit

10 Comments and 19 Shares
Merge branch 'asdfasjkfdlas/alkdjf' into sdkjfls-final
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DuskStar
1425 days ago
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This reminds me of what my git history looks like after a Hackathon... Only with less profanity.
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brico
1424 days ago
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Yup. Thank goodness for rebase -i
Brooklyn, NY
AlK
1424 days ago
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Sad but true :D
Paris
SkullyFM
1054 days ago
so true
AlK
1054 days ago
hey
analogue
1425 days ago
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How git commits are getting worse and worse
New York, USA
economyaki
1425 days ago
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http://www.commitlogsfromlastnight.com/
the collective wisdom of git is truly staggering.
nyc
javyer
1425 days ago
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git commit -m "fix"
git commit -m "fix/2"
git commit -m "fix/3"
Buenos Aires, Argentina
MourningDragon
1425 days ago
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looks familiar...
yashimii
1425 days ago
ich schmeiss mich weg
joshwa
1425 days ago
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does that graph look upside-down to anyone else?
El Cerrito
Ludwig
1425 days ago
He appears to be using a GUI tool rather than "git log --graph"… but there should be a sort triangle on the Date header.
tsuckow
1425 days ago
gitk is the other way. Wouldn't surprise me if some windows/mac client was oriented this way.
joshwa
1425 days ago
gitx on mac's default sort is also newest-first...
Gnoupi
1425 days ago
Or simply it makes more sense to read it this way, from a comic strip. The effect would be lost also if the "qsdflmkqsjdfm" rows were coming first.
saucistophe
1425 days ago
Randall has strong views on vertical text disposition: http://xkcd.com/781/
trparky
1425 days ago
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Alt Text... "Merge branch 'asdfasjkfdlas/alkdjf' into sdkjfls-final"
ghling
1423 days ago
did you need to type that by yourself?
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